Ex-bookkeeper bilked acclaimed West Loop restaurants of more than $600K: feds

SHARE Ex-bookkeeper bilked acclaimed West Loop restaurants of more than $600K: feds
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The interior of Blackbird restaurant, 619 W. Randolph St. | Sun-Times file photo

The ex-bookkeeper for two of the city’s most critically acclaimed restaurants was arrested Wednesday and charged with funneling more than $600,000 from the eateries into her personal accounts.

Renee M. Johnson, 60, faces one federal count of mail fraud, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

As a bookkeeper for One Off Hospitality, which owns the West Loop restaurants Blackbird and Avec, Johnson wrote hundreds of unauthorized checks from company accounts to pay down her own credit card debt and mortgages on real estate holdings in the city, prosecutors said.

She then hid the theft by making bogus entries in the company’s accounting system, sometimes cutting a check payable to her own creditors, and then writing a new check with the same number to pay for legitimate expenses, prosecutors said.

A co-worker noticed that balances were off when the company switched to a new accounting system last summer, prosecutors said.

When company partners confronted Johnson with the misappropriations on Aug. 24, she “did not make eye contact with anyone and stated, ‘This is me, I did this,” according to the criminal complaint.

She allegedly told them she was “in over her head and had ‘helped too many people,'” and, on her way out of the office, offered some advice: “Make sure the next bookkeeper you hire doesn’t do the bank reconciliations as well,” the complaint states.

The Chicago resident banked $604,113 off the scheme from 2011 to 2017, with Blackbird and Avec sustaining the brunt of the embezzlement, prosecutors said.

The partners of Blackbird first leveled the accusations against Johnson in a January lawsuit.

“In August of 2017, we discovered that a long-standing member of the Blackbird and Avec teams, whose employment with us spanned nearly two decades, had embezzled funds from our businesses over an extended period of time,” the partners said in a statement at the time of the civil filing. “As soon as we found out about these improprieties, we acted quickly and fired the team member from her position as a bookkeeper. Additionally, we initiated both a legal investigation and a police investigation immediately.”

One Off representatives declined to comment on Wednesday’s criminal charge.

The restaurants have drawn international acclaim, with Blackbird notching a Michelin star last year.

If convicted, Johnson could face up to 20 years in prison.

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